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Pa.’s redistricting process is officially over

Plus, we're celebrating Sunshine Week with stories about Pa.'s Right-to-Know Law.

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

March 17, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Sunshine Week, York County lawsuit, maps upheld, Kane arrested, RTK stories, bridge concerns, Proud Boy allegations, jail deaths, and dated ballots.
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The redistricting process in Pennsylvania is over. 

As Kate Huangpu reports, the state Supreme Court this week rejected legal challenges to the legislative maps and said they could be used for this year's spring primary. 

The high court also set a final primary calendar for legislative candidates. Candidates can begin collecting signatures on March 18 to appear on the ballot and must be finished by March 28, a compressed timeline.

The decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court declining to block the use of the state's new congressional map. Want to see what your old and new districts look like? Consult our comparison tool.

Spotlight PA is also celebrating Sunshine Week, a national event that highlights the importance of transparency and open government. We held a free panel Wednesday on the state's open records law with experts Paula Knudsen Burke and Erik ArnesonWatch a recording of that event here — and don't miss the stories below from our reporters about their experiences with the law.

Finally, Spotlight PA and four other state newsrooms are suing the York County Clerk of Courts over alleged First Amendment violations after the office shut off free, easy access to criminal court records and instituted a policy that slowed their release.
THIS IS A GAMECHANGER: We've been challenged to raise $25,000 to prove how much Pennsylvanians value the hard-hitting, nonpartisan investigative journalism that Spotlight PA produces.

There is no better time to support Spotlight PA than now, because for a limited time, every contribution will be DOUBLED thanks to a generous matching gift from The Benter Foundation in Pittsburgh.

If you're a fan of The Investigator and have made it part of your weekly routine, pay it forward and support Spotlight PA's vital journalism today.

» THANK YOU to the 46 people who contributed yesterday. Do your part »
"When court access is delayed or denied entirely, it makes it more difficult for journalists to report on, and for communities to oversee the judicial system, law enforcement, public spending, and government officials."

Sasha Dudding, of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, on a lawsuit over alleged First Amendment violations in York County
» Top Pa. drug official denies blame for botched medical marijuana guidance, but her claims don’t add up

» Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane arrested for DUI

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far

The good, the bad, and the ugly of Pa.’s open records law

Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law is central to much of Spotlight PA’s work. But that doesn’t mean that the statute is perfect, or that our reporters don’t run into issues when trying to obtain information they believe the public should have access to. Below, three of Spotlight PA’s investigative reporters explain barriers they’ve encountered while using the law. 

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA: When the General Assembly wrote Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, it carved out a sizable exemption for itself. Unlike the executive branch, the legislature does not have to give up emails or other correspondence that can be critical to the reporting process. What they are on the hook for are financial records — but as I learned with my colleagues at The Caucus, even those records aren’t guaranteed.

We embarked on a project in 2019 to document how the legislature spends money, seeking every expenditure other than salaries and benefits. The state House and Senate eventually turned over thousands of pages of expense records, but they were littered with redactions that obscured the reason for the expense.

We appealed, and both chambers backtracked and provided most of the documents without redactions. But the state Senate stood by its argument that “legislative privilege” allowed it to withhold some details about how lawmakers spend public money. 

Jamie Martines, Spotlight PA: In September 2021, I requested records related to the state’s COVID-19 school testing program with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks. I wanted to know details like which schools were participating in the program and how many people were getting tested weekly. I knew from contract documents between the Department of Health and Ginkgo, as well as from interviews I had conducted, that the records I was looking for should be available. 

DOH denied my request based on the Disease Prevention and Control Law, a defense the Wolf administration used to avoid releasing records throughout the pandemic. In my appeal, I outlined similar situations during the pandemic in which DOH had the data and used the DPCL to avoid releasing it but eventually made it available anyway.

My appeal was granted in February 2022 — five months after I initially requested the information. By that time, DOH had already made most of what I was looking for available on its website. 

However, the appeal process was still useful, because the ruling from the Office of Open Records in my favor outlined that the information was not confidential under the DPCL. This could be useful if similar situations come up in the future. 

Adapted from previous reporting by Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA: In 2018, the Wolf administration endorsed cannabis as a treatment for addiction — a controversial decision. As part of his reporting on the issue, Ed Mahon asked the Department of Health how many of the state’s roughly 550,000 registered patients were approved to use marijuana for this reason. 

The agency refused to hand over that information and later denied a request made under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. The rejections were surprising, as the state has made such information publicly available in the past.

Mahon appealed the decision to the Office of Open Records, which ruled in his favor, finding DOH had failed to prove the information was confidential under state law. The agency appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, and Spotlight PA is now fighting the case with help from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

TRAVEL MONEY: Years before it collapsed in January, injuring 10 people, Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge was put on a waiting list for funding to address state inspectors' serious safety concerns. But the money never came, going instead to a bridge in far better condition three miles away. The Post-Gazette reports on PennDOT's "preventative" funding decisions and the decaying spans often left behind.

CAPITOL CASE: A Carlisle man and suspected "upper-tier" member of the Proud Boys is being targeted by federal investigators seeking new clues about the far-right group's planning of the U.S. Capitol siege. LNP reports the man hasn't been publicly named, but a search warrant for his home is tied to last week's Jan. 6-related arrest of the group's former leader, Henry "Enrique" Tarrio, on conspiracy counts.

JAIL DEATHS: At least 13 men died at Allegheny County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only one from the virus itself, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found. The outlet focused on deaths that occurred in the past two years, when lockdowns intensified and staff shortages curtailed services. It found deaths that are publicly undercounted, with key details kept from loved ones and the broader public.

VOID BALLOTS: Pennsylvania's requirement that mail ballot envelopes be dated in order for those votes to be counted is not an undue burden on the right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, a federal judge has ruled. The decision means undated mail ballots at the center of a months-long stalemate in Lehigh County will remain rejected. It's unclear if the plaintiffs plan to appeal the ruling.

STRIKE TEAM: LNP reports a federal strike team sent to relieve regional hospital strain in and around York during the omicron wave may not have had much impact. The team spent two months at York's WellSpan hospital, which saw less than one patient transfer a day in that time. The head of Lancaster's EMS service said the regional impact was "low," while state officials say the numbers don't give the full picture.

» AP: Stampede of candidates file for Pennsylvania primary

» CAPITAL-STAR: Crypto-miners taking advantage of state tax break

» INQUIRER: No charges in shooting death of Jamaican immigrant

» LNP: Ex-Lancaster Drug Task Force chief 'abused his position'

» VICE: How militarized police in Pa., beyond are aiding Ukraine

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

ARE WE THERE YET? (Case No. 138)You're at a fork in the road. One direction leads to the City of Lies (where everyone always lies) and the other to the City of Truth (where everyone always tells the truth). There's a person at the fork who lives in one of the cities, but you're not sure which. What question could you ask the person to find out which road leads to the City of Truth?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Friday (Find last week's clue here)

Congrats to Adam R. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Jon N., Dan H., Rebecca D., George S., Fred O., Johnny C., Annette I., Michael H., Ken S., Kenneth J., Mary B., Barbara M., and Seth Z.
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